The Magnificent Seven

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sansmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk

In making this film Fuqua has given himself not one, but two cinematic legacies to live up to. First is Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai, arguably the greatest and most influential picture ever made by the great Japanese director. The second is John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, the lesser Hollywood remake that nevertheless brought its own style and charm to the story. The former is a groundbreaking epic of masterful artistry and immense depth. The latter is a classic American western made enormously watchable by its terrific production and all-star cast. Neither of the shadows cast by these films can be ignored. Although this film takes the name of the Sturges’ film, it still cites the Kurosawa epic as its source material. Thus, whether the film wants to be an entertaining escapist spectacle or an innovative work of art (or, dare I say, both), the standard is high on both fronts.

The mining town of Rose Creek is attacked by a troop of bandits led by the corrupt entrepreneur Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who imposes his will by slaughtering many of the locals. Thus Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) set out on a mission in search of help. They find it in the warrant officer Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) who accepts the contract upon learning of Bogue’s involvement. He sets out to recruit a team to help him with this endeavour, starting with the gambler John Faraday (Chris Pratt). The two are later joined by the sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding comrade Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), the crazed but capable tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the disreputable Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and the Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeir). The seven of them together come to Rose Creek where they put into motion a plan to defend the town and its people from Bogue’s forces.

One of the strong points shared by both the Kurosawa and the Sturges films is the simplicity of their stories. Seven diverse warriors band together to combat a single threat. It is this simplicity that allowed both stories to be strongly driven by character and action. Fuqua’s film has this same simple setup; the problem is that he offers little of substance in its execution. Despite having a terrific cast at his disposal, there are few moments when they are truly able to come together and bring some life to the story. This is largely because the characters are defined more by star power than they are by their personalities. This can work on occasion. Chris Pratt, for example, does well in what is very much a ‘Chris Pratt’ role: a cocky but charming scoundrel. Denzel Washington however is cast as a strong, silent type and is thus allowed few opportunities to display his formidable on-screen presence and charisma. The chemistry between the actors is sometimes there, as in one scene where Washington and Hawke revive some of the energy that made them a great duo in Training Day, but little of it adds either drive or weight to the narrative.

There was certainly potential for a great movie here. The greatest realisation of that potential is the criminally underused Sarsgaard as the overtly evil Bogue. The cast is easily this film’s strongest asset and it’s a shame that Fuqua was unable to take full advantage of it. Still, for some viewers at least, the assemblage of these actors in this setting will be enough. I did like that the film took strides to include greater diversity in its ensemble, incorporating men of different ethnicities who showcase singular styles of fighting. This pays off in the third act when the final battle takes place. What we get here is more than simple horse riding and gunfire. During this climax Billy Rocks brings his knives into the gunfight, the ox-like Jack Thorne bull rushes his foes into submission and Red Harvest looses arrows left, right and centre. The build up towards this fight may have been lacklustre and the major character deaths that follow may not resonate in any meaningful way but, in terms of pure spectacle, it’s still a pretty great climax.

While there isn’t anything substantially wrong with this film, as far as remakes go, there is nothing that allows The Magnificent Seven to stand on its own two feet. Compared to the Sturges’ classic it is a lesser imitation. To even bother comparing it to Kurosawa’s masterpiece would be almost like comparing a finger painting to the ‘Mona Lisa’. It is a sometimes entertaining but ultimately hollow film that feels more like a star vehicle than it does a western. It seemed to me that the film was more interested in cashing in on the ensemble blockbuster trend started by The Avengers than it was in telling a great story. The western setting felt artificial and the movie’s discussion on the themes of honour, justice and sacrifice felt insincere. This film could have been something special, if only it had half of the emotion and depth of the films that influenced it. Instead The Magnificent Seven stands as a picture of unrealised possibility and unfulfilled promise.


The Blair Witch

Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson

Director: Adam Wingard

Writer: Simon Barrett

When The Blair Witch Project first came out in 1999, it took the world by storm with its revolutionary found-footage format, authentic low-budget production and dynamic online marketing campaign. I however was seven at the time and didn’t get round to watching the film until I was in university, by which time found-footage had become an established genre and the film itself had become quite dated. The Blair Witch Project is thus a film that I admire more than I like. Although it was far too late for me to fall for the movie’s student documentary disguise, I was able to appreciate how it captured that realistic effect through its non-expert cinematography and non-professional actors. While I wasn’t scared by what occurred, I could understand how effective the format and tone could have been at generating scares back before found-footage became a gimmick. I suppose that, more than anything, was the sequel’s fatal weakness: The Blair Witch Project was a film that could only have worked back when it did. To try and do the same thing again two decades later is self-defeating and futile.

20 years after the disappearance of his sister Heather in her pursuit of the Blair Witch, James (James Allen McCune) has discovered new footage that he believes shows what happened to her. Hoping that she might still be alive, he decides to search for her in the woods where she disappeared with his friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). Every second of this search is captured by Lisa as footage for her documentary. In Burkittsville they meet the locals who originally found and uploaded the lost footage, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), and agree to let them join their search. Together the party ventures into the woods towards the spot where the footage was unearthed, hoping there might be a clue to point them towards James’ sister. It isn’t long before they get lost and start encountering the strange sights and sounds that had haunted Heather and her friends all those years ago.

17 years ago when The Blair Witch Project pioneered found-footage as a format, no one had seen anything like it in cinema. It was such a simple format that pretty much anyone who owned a video camera could adopt it, leading to a long line of imitations. It has been used and misused so many times that it has lost much of that rawness and authenticity that had made it so effective in the first place. This time around in the sequel (which I assume is set in a happier, more idyllic world where Book of Shadows doesn’t exist), the style they use feels less natural and less genuine. The film is clever in the way it incorporates multiple ways of recording footage (including GoPros, iPads and a drone), but the use of these cameras seems more contrived than before. The actors are also a little more recognisable this time around and their performances are more self-conscious and deliberate. The style and structure the film adopts from The Blair Witch Project just doesn’t work as well this time around because it brings too much attention to itself.

Even if the film could have captured the same mood and effect as the original, it still suffers from a lack of restraint that plays an equal part in undermining many of its scares. Whereas the first film built tension through distant yet unsettling sounds, The Blair Witch turns the volume up to eleven. There are too many “Boo!” moments in this film for any real sense of dread and terror to be built. There are some moments that manage to be reasonably scary, one example being a claustrophobic sequence near the end. The movie also manages to convey the same sense of a haunting, ethereal threat by giving the woods a disorienting sense of time that affects the characters. For the most part however the film relies more on shock than it does on horror and is weaker for it.

The Blair Witch Project was a sensation of its time. This is just yet another 90s sequel that wasn’t needed, didn’t bring anything new, and doesn’t merit watching. Even if it could have generated half the hype of its predecessor, the film still doesn’t give the viewer anything that they cannot get from watching the original. It does a passable job as far as imitations go, but an imitation is all it is. It is a film that never tries to be its own as it follows the original’s example beat-by-beat and builds up to a climax that fails to surprise or astonish. Any scares the film is able to attain are momentary and will not linger with any viewer once the credits roll. What The Blair Witch demonstrates more than anything else is that a phenomenon cannot be created twice, a lesson that Gus Van Sant learnt when he made his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.


Kubo and the Two Strings

Cast: (voiced by) Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Matthew McConaughey

Director: Travis Knight

Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler

American animated movies at their best can be smart, creative and enthralling, but they don’t often treat their audience with the maturity and seriousness that Studio Ghibli’s movies do. This is one of the qualities that I found to be the most impressive in Kubo and the Two Strings, a movie that is absolutely teeming with Ghibli’s influence. As well as being smart, creative and enthralling, Kubo is subtle, complex and poetic. It can be joyful and light-hearted in some moments and then dark and frightening in others. It is a grand, epic adventure but it is also an intimate, bittersweet story. This movie offers Western children an illuminating insight into an entirely different culture while still depicting a story that they can identify as being classically universal: the hero’s journey. I am always astounded when a film can accomplish so many different things at once and can appeal to a great variety of people. Kubo and the Two Strings astounded me.

In ancient Japan Kubo, a one-eyed boy living in a cave with his ill mother, spends his days in the nearby village where he magically manipulates pieces of paper into origami shapes to tell stories. These stories he tells are those of his late father, the legendary samurai warrior Hanzo. Kubo must however leave as soon as the sun starts to set for if he ever stays outside at night, his grandfather the Moon King will find him and come to take his remaining eye. While attending a ceremony where he hopes to speak to his father’s spirit, Kubo stays outside for too long and is found and chased by his mother’s Sisters. Kubo’s mother uses her remaining magic to send Kubo away while she stays behind to fend off the Sisters. Kubo awakens in a desolate place where his only companions are Monkey, a wooden charm brought to life by his mother’s magic, and Beetle, Hanzo’s samurai apprentice. With their help Kubo must find his father’s lost weapon and armour and use them to defeat the Moon King.

The film throws a lot of weighty material at children but trusts that they are able to handle it and refrains from patronising them. There is on one level an epic quest taking place that takes Kubo to a great many places, both wonderful and scary. The threats he faces are both great (like the colossal skeleton) and menacing (like the chillingly designed Sisters), the obstacles he must overcome are immense and the lessons he must learn are difficult. Thus we also get a deep, profound story of love and loss. With his father gone and his mother slowly fading away, Kubo has never really known what it is to have a family. The loneliness he feels is heartrending in its melancholy, but that makes his strong resilience all the more admirable. He finds this strength not only through his companions but also through the stories of his mother and father. Kubo and the Two Strings is a testament to the power of stories and their capacity to move us, bind us and preserve us.

Laika has done much impressive work in stop-motion animation before in films like Coraline and The Boxtrolls, but Kubo outdoes them all. The beautiful colours, the incredible designs and the masterful craftsmanship, these are all employed to astonishing effect in this visually breathtaking film. Kubo warns us on the outset not to blink and I tried my hardest to comply for fear of missing a second of the spectacle. Complementing the visuals is Dario Marianelli’s stunning, expressive score, which truly shines in the sequences that accompany Kubo’s stories as he plucks his shamisen. The voicework in this film is also splendid. Parkinson turns in the right kind of childish determination as Kubo, Theron is sublime as his dedicated, no-nonsense guardian and Mara brings a cold detachment to her role as the Sisters. McConaughey also brings some welcome goofiness to the film but the light-hearted banter between Beetle and Monkey can sometimes be out of place and corny.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvellous achievement in modern animation. I can only imagine the number of hours it must have taken to create these visuals in all of their splendour and painstaking detail. The film’s merits are far more than technical though; Kubo boasts of incredible action, compelling characters and strong emotional resonance. The film will astonish the children just as much as it will move the adults. The story it tells is a bold one that shows how cruel and vicious the world can be as Kubo struggles with the pains of loss, loneliness, guilt, doubt and vulnerability. It is also a story that showcases the redemptive and commemorative powers of storytelling, leading to a deeply profound ending. After some of the stupendous works that have been produced over the past five or so years, the standard for children’s animation has never been higher. Kubo and the Two Strings triumphantly exceeds those standards is to be sure one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.


Sausage Party

Cast: (voiced by) Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek

Directors: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan

Writers: Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

In the spirit of Pixar, which has provided emotional portrayals of toys, fish, robots and even emotions, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg posed what seemed to them an innocent question: what if our food had feelings? It did not take them long to realise how messed up that would be, leading to Sausage Party. By venturing into animation, Rogen and Goldberg have found a format that perfectly complements their juvenile and crass sense of humour. The film is able to be coarse and explicit while also being childish. Sausage Party is a movie that appeals to the immature thirteen-year-old in all of us. In a way, it’s a little like South Park if they took out the sharp social commentary and masterfully crafted humour. Sausage Party is vulgar, infantile and dumb and had me laughing in spite of my better judgement many times.

The movie is set in a supermarket called Shopwell’s where every food product dreams of being chosen by one of the gods who will take them to the Great Beyond. Among them is a sausage called Frank and a hot dog bun named Brenda who cannot wait to be chosen together so that they may finally consummate their relationship. However a jar of Honey Mustard who was chosen but then returned by one the gods hysterically declares that everything they’ve been led to believe about the Great Beyond is a lie. After telling Frank to seek out the Firewater, the Honey Mustard commits suicide. His death causes Frank, Brenda, Kareem the lavash, Sammy the bagel and the antagonistic Douche to fall out of their shopping cart and get left behind in the store. Douche is discarded and vows revenge against Frank. Barry, a sausage who had inhabited the same packet as Frank, is taken into the Great Beyond where he learns the secret that drove Honey Mustard to his death. Frank meanwhile leads the others on a quest through the supermarket to discover this terrible truth.

I’ve been dismissive of Rogen’s brand of humour before in such films as Bad Neighbours 2. Personally I’ve found that while these types of films often hold much potential for comedy, a lot of that potential does not get realised because not enough thought or craft goes into their development. The result of this lack of discipline is a bunch of semi-improvised bits and jokes that don’t really go anywhere. This is perhaps why I found Sausage Party to be a more humorously fulfilling experience, because animation is not a format that really lends itself to ad-libbed gags and spontaneous riffing (at least not to the extent that Rogan tends to favour). This was a film that demanded tighter scripting and the comedy is more consistent because of it. The animation also enabled the film to play around with some of the possibilities of visual comedy, as in one sequence that pays homage to Saving Private Ryan.

The humour is typically Rogen/Goldberg-esque and has plenty of stoner jokes, sex jokes, and just plain fucked up jokes with a plethora of food puns for good measure. There are countless ideas in this film from the lesbian taco played by Salma Hayek to the intoxicating effects of bath salts to the explosive finale that made me think “only the imagination of Seth Rogen could’ve come up with this”. I did think that the larger story the film was trying to tell about diversity, tolerance and faith was a little too hammered in and felt kind of unwarranted. It tries to do this in a number of ways such as the inclusion of a Jewish bagel and a Muslim lavash who clash over the differing ideologies until they come together in the weirdest, most shocking way imaginable. There are enough laughs to be had in their depiction of this theme (I had a good chuckle at the German beer declaring his intention to kill all the juice), but overall it felt to me like the film was trying to be smarter than it was or needed to be.

Sausage Party is an outrageous, crude, stupid film and is absolutely hilarious. It is a shameless movie that revels in its debauchery, obscenity and immaturity. Those who enjoy bad taste comedy will find much to enjoy in the film’s utterly disturbing concept, its explicitly graphic imagery that cannot be unseen, and its unrelenting, unabashed perversity and depravity. People will be offended by this film, of that I have no doubt. There are some who won’t appreciate the topical references and others who just won’t be able to handle the film’s more decadent aspects. However, as opposed to something like South Park, Sausage Party is by no means a mean-spirited film. It takes its shots but in truth this film is laughing at itself more than it is at anything else. Getting offended by this movie is a bit like being offended by a loudmouth child with a crude imagination; it’s futile. Sausage Party is a silly, childish film for grown-ups and is a lot of fun to watch.


Bad Moms

Cast: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Annie Mumolo, Jay Hernandez, Jada Pinkett Smith, Christina Applegate

Directors: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore

Writers: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore

This film, which has been advertised as the product of the “gratefully married” writers of The Hangover, wants to sell itself as a gift to women. The intention, it seems, is to pay tribute to the daily works and sacrifices that wives and mothers make for their families and to acknowledge how overwhelming and thankless their efforts can be. As well intentioned as this project may have been, it is rather telling that a film about motherhood was made by a predominantly male creative team led by two guys called Jon and Scott. It is strange that this should be the case when there are more female writers and directors working in comedy today than ever before. Yes, the cast is largely female, but that doesn’t mean the film will necessarily be representative of women. Bad Moms is, to say the least, a weak film; one that suffers from many of the same problems plaguing American comedies today. More importantly, Bad Moms is not in any shape or form a feminist film.

Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) is a married, working mother who feels overly stressed by her commitments and the pressure she is under. It doesn’t help that her husband Mike (David Walton) barely lifts a finger to help her and that she is constantly judged for her failings by the mothers of the PTA, led by the autocratic Gwendolyn James (Christina Applegate) and her lapdogs Stacy (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Vicky (Annie Mumolo). When Amy finally explodes in a loud, public meltdown, she winds up in a bar where she meets the relaxed, sexually-liberal mum Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and the sheepish, stay-at-home mum Kiki (Kristen Bell). The three of them make a pact to abandon the standards expected of “perfect” mothers and take some time for themselves instead. When her new attitude clashes with that of Gwendolyn, the two go to war with one another. Amy thus resolves to run for the PTA presidency and to stand up for all the “bad moms”.

What irritated me about this film was the way it proclaimed itself to be a celebration of motherhood when it didn’t even have the decency to treat the subject as seriously as it deserves. That might seem like a misguided criticism for what is supposed to be a raunchy comedy but I do think it is important for a movie that aspires towards feminism. While there are plenty of mothers today who are able to make ends meet for their children while working full-time jobs, this movie undermines their efforts with a protagonist who fails to be relatable due to her one-dimensionality and stupidity (seriously, who eats spaghetti while driving?). The movie proceeds to divide the mothers into cliques where they display the emotional maturity of fifteen-year-olds as they squabble over such petty issues as bake sales. This movie takes the struggles of white suburban motherhood and reduces them to cheap and inconsequential problems that become greatly exaggerated until they are resolved through the act of letting go and taking it easy. This portrait of motherhood is not just false, it’s utterly patronising.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. After all I don’t really expect a comedy in the vein of The Hangover to provide me with a deep, honest insight into the challenges and struggles of motherhood. But the idea that this movie was intended as man’s gift for all of those wives and mothers is what stopped me from letting it off the hook. During the credits we are treated to a series of interviews with the six principal actresses (all of whom are mums) and their real-life mothers talking about the challenges of raising children and sharing some of their own “bad mom” stories. We are therefore encouraged to view this movie as being representative of the experiences of real mothers, a grossly misleading notion. While I’m not prepared to state that men are incapable of making feminist films, there is no shortage of mothers working in show business today capable of making the film that Bad Moms could have been (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Sharon Horgan to name a few (heck, Annie Mumolo is an Oscar-nominated writer!)).

Putting the film’s issues with feminism aside, Bad Moms can be pretty funny on occasion, largely because of its talented cast. Anyone who watches this film looking for nothing more than a silly comedy with coarse humour will get exactly that. There was a surprise cameo during a party scene in the middle that got a laugh out of me. Still it surprises me that in 2016 we’re still getting female-targeted comedies that don’t bring enough women into the creative process. I’m not going to pretend that every male-led comedy is inherently sexist or that every female-led comedy is necessarily feminist, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that mothers probably understand motherhood better than most. This movie comes across less as a tribute to motherhood and more as a satire. Even then, it isn’t a particularly good satire. It misses the whole point about the sexist cultural issues that have led to the impossible standards of modern motherhood and instead determines that the problem is with other bitchy mothers. Bad Moms is good for the occasional chuckle but not much else.


David Brent: Life on the Road

Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Tom Basden, Jo Hartley, Tom Bennett

Director: Ricky Gervais

Writer: Ricky Gervais

Of all the TV comedies that have been made in the last decade and a half, either in America or the UK, few can claim to have been as influential as Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s The Office. Not only did it popularise the mockumentary for television but it was also one of the programmes (along with Curb Your Enthusiasm) that pioneered the art of cringe comedy. It is commonly held that all comedy is derived from misery, an idea that cringe comedy pursues to the greatest extreme. The theatrical setups and canned laughter of the sitcom was thus abandoned in favour of authentically awkward encounters and harsh, painful silences. The Office took that concept to even greater heights by adopting a realistic format that still placed an emphasis on the very act of performing for an audience while also keeping them detached. At its best this show could capture humourous moments of such profound agony that we could barely bring ourselves to look at the screen. Now Gervais has revived David Brent to carry that same brand of humour over to the big screen.

15 years after being made redundant by Wernham Hogg, David Brent (Ricky Gervais) is now a sales rep and aspiring musician preparing for a tour. The documentary crew that originally filmed him are now producing a ‘where are they now’ type of piece on Brent that he expects will be his Shine a Light. In order for the tour to happen though he must use up his work holidays and pay for all the arrangements out of his own pocket. Touring with him are his band Foregone Conclusion, who are in it for the money, and aspiring rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), who hopes to further his career in spite of Brent’s hindrances. Dan Harvey (Tom Basden), the group’s sound engineer, accompanies the tour and must try and protect everyone from Brent’s faults including Brent himself. This proves trying as Brent incessantly throws his money away and humiliates them all with each and every gig.

The cringe factor that made The Office such a gamechanger is not as palpable in this film, but it’s definitely there. The dead silences and exasperated looks to the camera that were staples of the TV show are all revived to help attain those painful laughs that Gervais loves so much. These are brought about by Brent’s performances of such wildly inappropriate songs as ‘Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds’ and ‘Native American’ (which includes the lyric “soar like an eagle, sit like a pelican”). These songs with their clueless, politically incorrect lyrics coupled with Brent’s commentary and outrageous attempts at grandstanding provide no end in misery for his bandmates and audiences, resulting in some enjoyably cringeworthy moments. Trust David Brent to write an ode to Princess Diana that finds time to mention AIDS and the different ways that people can contract it. The issue for me though is that the film does get repetitive after a while. There are only so many times you can watch someone make a tit out of himself on stage.

The Office, while hilarious, could also be moving and profound in the moments where it showed how human and vulnerable Brent could be. We got more of that drama here as Gervais shows us Brent’s increased aggravation and desperation in his quest to be accepted by others. In between their gigs, his bandmates are so determined not to spend any time with him that Brent ends up paying them all just to have a pint with him. There’s also a touch of resentment and frustration thrown in when Dom starts getting the attention of a record label rather than Brent. However much of this is sadly undermined by the film’s ending with its abrupt reconciliation. This is perhaps symptomatic of the differences between film and television as formats. So much time has passed since the TV show’s conclusion and so many new elements and characters are introduced in this film that I don’t think a 90 minute runtime was enough to earn the ending that Gervais wanted for Brent.

The film isn’t as deep or as rich as The Office was, but it is funny and enjoyably cringeworthy. While I’m not a fan of the film’s ham-fisted resolution, I enjoyed everything that came before. The soundtrack is hilarious and a lot better than you might expect from someone like Brent, with plenty of highlights including ‘Lady Gypsy’ and ‘Equality Street’. The songs themselves are funny enough but Gervais is able to carry them to greater comedic heights simply through his expressions and gestures. This film may not have been necessary in the grand scheme of things (given that The Office had such a perfect ending) but I certainly enjoyed revisiting this character that Gervais plays so well. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to even compare it to The Office considering that no other character from the series is featured in this film (maybe a film like This is Spinal Tap! would be a more appropriate comparison). The film is by no means a comedic masterpiece but it made me laugh and cringe and I’m glad I saw it.